My New Band Is: The Indoctrinated Rich
On the Brearley dad, what indoctrination means in the context of education, and private schools that are segregation academies
If Bari Weiss has a post-New York Times “beat”, it’s defending rich white private school parents from the horrors of racial awareness. And credit where credit is due, she seems to have become the go-to writer on that beat for the aggrieved richies and kind of owns it now, which is what every niche reporter aspires to.
That said, “reporter” is probably giving her too much credit since she seems willing to air the stories of her favored subjects without talking to any of the people on the other side of them. There are no comments from teachers, or administrators, or well, non-white parents. So really, it’s more like niche public relations, I suppose. But if you’re the kind of person who can afford to send your kid to a $54,000 a year school and have strong opinions about Critical Race Theory but have never read a single CRT text, Bari is the person you want to talk to. (I hope she’s willing to give me a commission on her new Substack subs for this endorsement.)
But this column is not about Bari Weiss in particular; it’s about the parents whose grievances she’s presenting. They all have a problem with what they consider to be liberal overreach in schools, and particularly modern forms of addressing issues of race and equity, especially when they manifest in things like anti-racism training and deploy terminology that seems overly academic and abstract.
The latest Mad Dad™ is a guy named Andrew Gutmann whose daughter went to Brearley, a famous all girls’ school in Manhattan. Gutmann wrote a letter to the entire school when he pulled her out of Brearley, because he thinks it exhibits the kind of overreach mentioned above, and Weiss published it, taking it very much at face value, and describing it as jaw-dropping.
I read it, and I can’t say that it had the same effect on me, though the effect may have been physical and involved my face. Weiss’s jaw was on the floor, and my eyes rolled so far into the back of my head I may have sprained one of them.
Some Context About the Mad Dad
This is not the first time Gutmann has gone public with his views on diversity. He has a blog, and if you need more context for his views, they’re pretty well documented there. Here are his views on affirmative action, for example. He also has plenty of views on education in general, including this one:
These things are important because Defenders of Gutmann who have only read the letter suggest that we can’t really know what he means by “systemic racism”, etc. and that this is impossible to parse from the letter alone.
His views on teaching methods are relevant because that’s part of what he’s criticizing here. And here’s Gutmann’s background: according to his Linkedin bio, he spent five years as an investment banker--three years as an associate at a firm that has a good private equity business but doesn’t crack the top 20 league tables for banking, and two years as a VP at HSBC Securities, which sounds very fancy as a title, but is a step above associate in investment banking. I mention this because the rest of Gutmann’s career appears to be predicated upon the idea that he’s a Former Investment Banker and that this is his area of expertise. He even wrote a book called How to Be an Investment Banker for Wiley. Subsequently he has taught classes on the topic for a school he founded called The Institute for Finance. This is presumably the teaching experience he alludes to above.
I know it sounds like I’m taking cheap shots at his career—did you even second-year analyst at Goldman, bro?—but I think it’s relevant because Gutmann seems very confident in his own expertise, and all it took to be an expert on investment banking was five years of investment banking at the junior level at non-bulge bracket banks. Now I am not an expert on investment banking by any stretch, but I did found a site called Dealbreaker that was all about investment banking at Gutmann’s level and explicitly for junior analysts at investment banks (and private equity firms and hedge funds, and so on) and was a lowly equity analyst working for a hedge fund guy at one point. So I’m at least somewhat aware of how that audience evaluates expertise and where he worked and how long are relevant considerations.
And how he deploys his credentials to make his arguments is relevant here too: note his dismissal of classroom discussion (good thing he didn’t go to school anywhere that famously uses Socratic method, like Harvard Law School), which is based on his own experience teaching, in an institute he founded. This is the context in which he is evaluating his daughter’s school. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but we know from actual research that lecture format is possibly the least effective way to get students to learn, and the best involves active learning methods like… classroom discussion. (Here I’ll whip out my credentials! I taught for six years in a design research MFA program at SVA, and am now going into my fourth year teaching at NYU in the graduate school of journalism. Not only do I think an all-lecture format with no participation would make our program much less compelling, there are things we teach that demand discussion and hands-on work. And my students learn from each other all the time.)
So Why Is Dad Mad This Time?
The short version is, Guttman is very sure his daughter’s teachers are going about teaching all wrong, and forcing things like anti-racist training down his daughter’s throat. He states that Brearley has an obsession with diversity and race (an obsession that oddly does not seem to be reflected in either their admissions or leadership, last time I checked). He refers to the people who support these things as an “anti-intellectual illiberal mob” which suggests that despite the general verbosity of the letter, he may not know what some of these words he’s using mean, and much of his argument is about the over-intellectualization of issues of race, so other parts of it may just be projection.
He makes some reasonable points about legacy admissions, which of course perpetuate inequality and a lack of diversity, and it is indeed hard to take seriously any institution’s commitment to equality and meritocracy** when the rich kids get in, no matter what.
But he also predictably deploys the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and, this will not surprise you, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to suggest that he is in fact being judged “by the color of his skin.”
If MLK, Jr. rolled over in his grave every time a white person did that, the centripetal force would be so great that the resulting explosion would take out most of Atlanta.
I suspect what’s actually happening here is that Gutmann’s daughter is coming home and discussing things about race in a way that makes Gutmann uncomfortable because he’s never been confronted with these ideas himself, he feels personally attacked, and he doesn’t understand the vocabulary, so he over-focuses on the things that feel alien to him, which is anything that suggests America is not inherently good, that white people have a societal debt to Black people, and so on, and that this is more about his feelings than his daughter’s education. And we’ve already established that he dislikes active learning methods like classroom discussion, and would prefer that instructors just port their knowledge over to students via lecture. So he’s probably more disturbed that instead of just telling students what to think, instructors are having students actually think through these issues that, if they’re wealthy and white, may not affect them directly and might make them ask uncomfortable questions about how their whiteness gives them some advantages and what their wealth means in the context of inequality in America. Worse, it may prompt them to ask those questions about their parents’ whiteness and wealth! And well, Mr. Gutmann cannot have that. He is not paying $54,000 a year so his daughter can learn that investment banking is largely a societally useless rent-seeking activity and that financial engineering has the potential to be enormously destructive.
How Does America Work?
Mad Dad is also mad because he thinks all of this concern about race is nonsense in the first place:
I’m not sure what makes Gutmann so very confident that he “properly understands” what systemic racism is, since he has no expertise in that area, either from being on the receiving end of it, or from having studied it as a policy maker or historian or anything of the sort. But he tells you explicitly what he thinks it is being used to describe at Brearley: slights by teachers, insults from friends, etc. I would argue that while microaggressions can and do happen and are bad (I assume this is what he’s alluding to), there are far more obvious examples of systemic racism right at Gutmann’s fingertips that he could only have missed if he had been in a coma since the 1960s. The war on drugs for example, which has disproportionately and intentionally targeted Black people. (How many bankers with coke habits does he know who’ve served time for doing lines at parties? How many black people were thrown in jail for crack possession during the same period?) Or the way law enforcement keeps shooting unarmed Black men (and children) but this doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem when, say, white people get pulled over for traffic stops. These things are not subjective, either. They’ve been heavily quantified. That Gutmann has chosen to avert his eyes from the evidence does not mean it doesn’t exist. These are not, as he puts it, “small numbers of instances over a period of decades.” And these things do not affect him and his kid, neither of whom will ever be stopped and frisked in New York City. But his daughter ostensibly has a few Black classmates and the Brearley imprimatur does not make their experience of the world identical to his daughter’s.
An Aside About Critical Race Theory:
Just once, I want a reporter to ask one of these people who whine endlessly about Critical Race Theory what they think it means. I do not for one second believe Gutmann has read a lot of Derrick Bell and has some reasonable point by point refutations. But I also do not believe Gutmann has read a reasonable synthesis or Cliff’s Notes version of it either because what he construes it to mean is ridiculous and inaccurate. CRT has become shorthand for a certain kind of conservative to mean “any aspect of the discourse around race that I don’t like.” But it is at base, a framework for understanding a single reasonable assumption: systemic racism exists and it permeates a lot of institutions that are core to how we all live.
(I do not believe, by the way, that you can extrapolate CRT from simply reading Critical Theory, but I don’t believe Gutmann has burdened himself with Adorno either.)
It should not be controversial, to anyone who actually values critical thinking, as Gutmann claims to do, that critiquing a consensus approach to history might be an integral part of a full education on the topic. You can read Bailyn and Bell, and I doubt very seriously that the Brearley syllabus has discarded the former.
But Mad Dad Is Convinced That His Daughter Is Being Indoctrinated.
Here’s the now predictable part of the Substack where I talk about me. I went to a private school, too. It was not, to put it mildly, Brearley.
In fact, it was a segregation academy, and one of the differences between Edgewood and Brearley was that Edgewood was 100% white except for the Latino exchange students who ended up on the wrong end of their exchange program, and I guess, people like me who are not entirely white but 100% present that way and have always checked the Caucasian box on the relevant forms. Another one of the differences was (*checks again to see how much Brearley costs, notes $54,000*) approximately $53,000 a year in tuition. Segregation academies were cheap and designed for non-richies. They were also small K-12s; there were 32 people in my graduating class, and I’d known most of them since kindergarten. There were no AP classes, no test prep.
Besides “no non-white students”, the other features of attending a segregation academy in the deep south during the 80s and 90s:
Corporeal punishment! Even high school boys were spanked with a heavy wooden paddle.
Racist textbooks: the Civil War was about states’ rights and slavery was a secondary issue.
Visits to the Confederate Memorial Cemetery, but not the Civil Rights Museum.
Fifth grade teachers who went to Bob Jones University and made you learn all the street names for every drug imaginable because Nancy Reagan was the expert and the country’s drug problems would obviously manifest in white kids doing PCP in Slapout, AL (where Pa Spiers lives, population ~250) and not, say a nationwide opioid epidemic and the mass incarceration of Black people.
Unlike the status quo at Brearley, not everyone I went to school with went to college. It was not that kind of prep school. Almost everyone on the faculty was an Evangelical Christian, and it had the contours of a parochial school without technically being one. The above mentioned 5th grade teacher began class with a Bible study, some of which was laced with inexplicable apocrypha. There was prayer before everything: assemblies, football games, sports banquets.
Gutmann rails against what he considers the “indoctrination” of his daughter, but I went to a school where the indoctrination was as literal as it possibly can be and alternative viewpoints were never presented because they also were not presented at home, and in the community surrounding the school.
I also grew up Southern Baptist in a rural part of Alabama and am a veteran of many revivals that involved extensive emotional manipulation that was reinforced by family and friends, and lots of loyalty pledges, and am wary of people who’ve never experienced anything like this but casually talk about “indoctrination”. [Yes, tell me about “indoctrination”, dude who grew up in a large metro ‘burb and who never went to a youth camp where you were told that if you did not conform specifically, you would burn in the fires of an eternal Hell, and that that hell was both literal and existential.]
Which is not to say these things were never debated in school; my long-suffering biology teacher taught evolutionary theory to a classroom full of students whose parents were adamant that Creationism was the only acceptable explanation for the origins of life on earth and probably got some Gutmann-esque complaints about it when he encouraged us to debate it in class.
I do not believe that what Gutmann is complaining about is indoctrination at all because a) these things are being actively discussed, which he apparently hates, and b) there is not a monolithic community around these NYC kids at Brearley that consists of parents and peers reinforcing whatever they learn at school as the only possible truth and the only acceptable truth, the one literally ordained by God. They are simply presenting an alternative framework to what Gutmann likely grew up with, and it’s not one he agrees with. And it makes him uncomfortable because it challenges the extent to which his own privileges and wealth are earned.
When I got into college at Duke, the only school I applied to, some of my more conservative relatives complained that I was going off to be indoctrinated by liberals at that liberal secular college, and if I had to go to school out of state, why couldn’t I go to Liberty? I was the first in my family to go to college, so sometimes my family’s perception of what college was like was sort of wacky anyway, but Duke is also an institution of higher education that graduated both Stephen Miller and Richard Spencer, which calls into question both “higher” and “education”. As liberal institutions go, it has quite a few conservatives, one of whom is a Republican national security expert and political science professor I still consider a mentor. It’s true that I moved left in college, all the way from conservative to… socially liberal libertarian. At graduation, Duke, a methodist university, gave me a Bible.
At any rate, if the university was trying to indoctrinate me as a leftist, it wasn’t very effective. What had been effective for a long time was growing up in a community that was a cultural, religious, and racial monolith. Wetumpka, my hometown, is not all white, all conservative, all Evangelical. But the people in my life growing up were. Brearley students are growing up in a multicultural city where they can explore any ideas they want, and they will be invariably exposed to people who think differently that they do and come from different backgrounds, whether Gutmann likes it or not. And if they want the rural Alabama Evangelical conservative experience, you can get that in New York City, too. It exists in several parts of Staten Island, and pockets of the other four boroughs. My downstairs apartment neighbor just reluctantly took down his giant Trump flag two week ago. He never took down his fliers about vaccines and 5G in the building elevator; though the other building residents did.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the free market of ideas. You put something in a public space; other people can respond to it critically.
What Gutmann is demanding from Brearley is not an end to indoctrination, but the imposition of it.
Gutmann is demanding a curriculum that does not cause his daughter to think about her whiteness and wealth, the first of which he’d prefer her to view as a matter of cosmetics, and the latter of which he believes he has fully earned and that it is not his daughter’s responsibility to consider the role her whiteness and their wealth might play in protecting them from many of the things Black people have to endure in this country.
I went back to Edgewood, my alma mater, before the pandemic. It’s been racially integrated for several years now, and the principal is a 40ish guy named Jay Adams, who still teaches classes, and whose own kids attend the school. I wanted to write an article about the role sports played in the integration of the segregation academies in the South (and sometimes the IRS, when they didn’t comply with integration mandates). When I was in school at Edgewood, we had a football team in particular, that did okay at the state level. Several years after I graduated, they got a new football coach and began recruiting athletes from other schools. Mostly Black football players. Edgewood began winning state championships and then national championships and then became a feeder school for Division I SEC teams. The recruits came from further abroad, sometimes literally: Prince Tega Wanogho, was recruited from Nigeria, originally to play basketball. He had to learn football from scratch, and well, now he plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, which went to the Super Bowl this year.
I spent some time with Adams, who is preternaturally cheerful for a school principal, walking around the school. I hugged the former biology teacher, who is still there, also the assistant football coach, and beloved by many. He is a grandfather now and we showed each other kid photos on our phones. I saw my former social studies teacher, also still there but an administrator now. One of the lunch ladies who used to work with my mom (my mom had been the school janitor, and then was a lunch lady herself in the cafeteria) was still there and asked about my family.
The big famous football coach left for another school, also a former segregation academy, and a lot of the student body and almost the entirety of the football team left with him. Enrollment went down as a result. The school has become more experimental under Adams’ tenure and he’s very philosophical about the role of education in the lives of students and responsibility of schools to educate the “whole student”, addressing their mental health and personal needs as well as their academic performance. He even wrote a book (a thing that it’s impossible to imagine my principal at Edgewood doing; I’m not sure he actually ever read books) articulating these things. He genuinely loves teaching—I mean, loves it, talks about it the way most men my age in Alabama talk about Nick Saban and hunting season—and while happy to talk about the sports programs, was visibly more excited about experimenting with the ways in which students learn. He’s reasonably athletic himself and was wearing an Edgewood branded sports gear when I met with him, but nothing he was excited to show me was in the field house.
He also showed me something Edgewood did not have when I was there: an art room. Edgewood’s main building is a minimalist cinderblock building, the redeeming feature of which is that it’s kind of tornado-proof, a requirement in central Alabama. It has a kind of institutional feel that has to be actively brightened up to feel welcoming. The art room is a riot of color and projects are affixed to every surface. When I walked in, students were packed in between things that would not be out of place in a Kusama installation: bright paper and sculpture that looks like vegetation. It is probably a fire hazard, but it’s wonderful. This might seem small, but it’s a glimpse of something bigger that Adams has ambitions of building and it manifests less outwardly in course expansion and the integration of online learning, including some university-level courses. When Adams has talked about race, he has used Internet era references he knows his students can and already are accessing. He has used John Scalzi’s “Straight While Male: The Lowest Difficulty Level There Is” to talk about race with kids who understand video games but not systemic racism, and this alone is such a vast change for the school that I wonder if he gets blowback for it. And he is not “woke”. He’s not even particularly liberal.
He has a lot of challenges: Covid was tough, enrollment is a perennial concern, and perhaps most significantly, he operates in a still largely monolithic community that does not like change.
On the school’s website, it notes that it is a private school that affirms “Christian values”. There are Elmore, Alabama versions of Andrew Gutmann who will happily tell Adams what he can and cannot discuss in the classroom and will rail against indoctrination while simultaneously insisting that the school pursue it. And while Edgewood is not an all-white academy anymore, Adams grapples with its legacy on that front and the informal segregation that happens all around it. I do not believe that Adams will start putting Kimberlé Crenshaw on his syllabus anytime soon but the textbooks aren’t there anymore, and the kids have been to the Civil Rights Museum, and I do not think Adams quakes in terror at the possibility of students encountering anything so fringe-y as the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times-published 1619 Project, though I still know the community well enough that I can anticipate exactly who the Andrew Gutmanns would be if he added it to the curriculum.
I hope Adams succeeds, and maybe selfishly. I did not understand that Edgewood was a literal product of the segregation-era when I was a student there (probably because we never talked about race) but I can’t unknow that now. I would like people to think of my alma mater as a good educational institution before they think of it as a school with a national championship football team or a school that was built on racism.
I would like to imagine that there are students at Edgewood who, under Adams’ leadership, will encounter some ideas that they’re not exposed to at home and by their peer group. That occasionally happened to me at Edgewood even when I was there, and I had some adults who supported me when I wanted to pursue things that were unconventional for the school (like going to a four year college out of state to be indoctrinated by liberals.)*** I think students now are better oriented to the outside world anyway because they have access to the internet and online learning offers kids in rural areas some things that they wouldn’t normally have access to. I hope that the school produces kids who can have difficult conversations around civic and cultural questions, though that will inevitably mean producing some graduates who disagree with what their parents and community believe, and there will be some backlash as a result.
That said, there are people who argue that all of the segregation academies should be burned down because there is no way to fully extricate them from their legacies. Even their integration was largely precipitated by a growing emphasis on sports and recruiting Black athletes—or to put it bluntly, Black bodies used to drive revenue for white school administrators. And I don’t think that “burn it down and start over” is an unreasonable argument at the macro level, however I personally feel about my own alma mater, which I’d rather see flourish.
Gutmann closes his letter with the assertion that Brearley is teaching students what to think instead of how to think (even though we’ve already established that he believes education is a one-way transaction where teachers tell students what to think and they absorb it):
He objects to students being taught morality even though he’s taking a moral position himself and insisting that the school adopt it, and even though all schools teach morality on some level because history is not value-neutral, and neither are the principles of democracy. That he views anti-racism as a false morality is less an indictment of anti-racism than a window into Gutmann’s views on race and the responsibilities white people might have toward Black people, which he believes have no moral dimension. He also believes that talking about race fosters divisiveness, (a classic right wing talking point) the implication of which is that not talking about it fosters togetherness. Given all of this, I would wager that it’s not Gutmann’s daughter who’s failed to learn how to think.
He also does not say what these people he claims to speak for will not talk about in class. I don’t believe that students are not allowed to rebut arguments. (Are these consequences social opprobrium or is someone getting suspended?) I also don’t believe teachers at Brearley avoid discussion and debate of these topics. If they did they would not be preparing their students very well for the top tier and very expensive colleges Brearley parents are hoping they attend.
But if Mr. Gutmann believes that the ideal educational environment for his daughter is one where she never has to think about her whiteness or money, he can always homeschool her. He could even lecture her non-stop and forbid class discussion. But Brearley is not obligated to offer her a program of education that will not engage any critique of consensus history or acknowledge the immense wealth from which it benefits.
If he’s not up for homeschooling, he can send her to any number of still existing segregation academies in the deep south, who will happily feed her a White People Did Nothing Wrong narrative and accept his money without apology. I don’t believe that’s my alma mater now, but it certainly was at one point.
And Gutmann is just one guy, but there are a lot of him, and they’re very rich, and they view education through a consumerist lens where they are the customer and the customer is always right. They have the economic power to bully institutions into a narrow curriculum that will never make them uncomfortable. They are all over Bari Weiss’s blog and she seems hellbent on unquestioningly publishing all of them.
They say they want freedom of thought in schools, but in practice, they will only accept their children being exposed to ideas that line up with what they personally believe.
[Recurring disclosure feature: This newsletter is kind of a recurring disclosure itself. If I keep this up, I will have a de facto serialized memoir. I’m not sure if this is good or bad.]
* if you want to understand the importance of high school football in Alabama, look at it this way: Friday Night Lights was a romcom: https://usatodayhss.com/2016/edgewood-academy-cancels-game-against-former-coach-bobby-carr-due-to-threats-of-intentional-injury
** I believe meritocracy is a capitalist delusion, as fanciful as a unicorn.
*** Thanks especially to: Mrs. Wolthoff, a non-Alabama native who ended up at Edgewood via her husband’s Air Force assignment and shepherded me through a college admissions process no one in my family was familiar with; Mr. Fisher and Mrs. Pinkston, who wrote my recommendations; Coach Norris, the aforementioned long suffering biology teacher and then softball and assistant football coach, who is still there, and Coach Aiken; who both encouraged me in class and as my basketball coach, was the only person who was genuinely excited about my college choice for non-academic reasons.
I just subscribed, knowing nothing about you or this blog, after reading this article. You are a compelling writer. You could definitely use an editor (this piece is really long and you repeat yourself in places) but that doesn’t change the fact that you are worth the price of a subscription.
The second half of this piece is what I found the most interesting. The first half comes across as annoyed venting toward a person who represents a perspective you deeply dislike. An approach far too common these days. Don’t get me wrong, I get it, but you clearly have the ability to move beyond that to something much more valuable to your readers.
The second half of this piece gives us a way of seeing and possibly understanding a group of people most don’t understand or even know exist. Most important, you reveal them as the humans they are. You help us see them as real people, with a cultural experience and perspective outside the mainstream, who likely find applied post-modernism and the many associated theories hard to understand much less embrace. You also help us see that some among them are nevertheless seeking to understand and address issues like racism as best they can.
I would love to read more from you where you helped us to see this group of people we don’t know, and most importantly, see them as human, some good, some not, but worth understanding.
“Write what you know” is a well worn phrase and maybe that’s what I’m asking for because you’re in a position to help me see and understand in a gracious way some people I might otherwise be inclined to demonize and hate. I can’t help but think of J. D. Vance and how he helped us see why poor Appalachain people would support a rich privileged white man for president. He revealed them warts and all, but kept their humanity intact.
I would love to read more about people like the principal at your former school and how they are trying to get students in those cultural backwaters to think about race and it’s implications. That brief mention gave me far more hope than anything I’ve read in a long time.
What Guttman seems to miss in his analysis of ML King’s approach is that King recognized the humanity and potential for change in everyone, even the people who wished to do him harm. King didn’t throw rocks at his enemies like Guttman is doing. King took the blows thrown his way without complaint and in so doing awoke the conscience of enough people to change this country for the better.
Great read as always.
Somewhat orthogonal, but as someone who was briefly a teacher in Mississippi as the country got up in arms around Common Core and the then-latest iteration of ‘new math’, even if one took at face value the Weiss et al claim of ‘thousands of people are writing me letters complaining about anti-racism curriculum’ in schools…I would not at all be convinced that this would represent a greater number of complaints than parents make about *any* part of the curriculum they don’t understand, whether morally loaded or not.
This isn’t to say there are not, of course, higher stakes societally, and more self-identity issues personally, when parents complain about anti-racism in curricula, but just that, *people complaining en masse about this curriculum* is hardly evidence of a societal crisis, or ‘the dam breaking’, so much as it is the everyday fuming of parents who a. don’t pedagogy particularly well (not their fault! Everyone has a layman’s experience of education, few are taught pedagogy) and b. parents don’t like the idea of being ‘wrong’ about anything/not understanding how and why their kids do anything differently than them (this one, definitely more their fault). Anyone who thinks otherwise can go look up the frothy facebook posts (and news segments) of any new math worksheet.